The Survival of Tibetan Culture


Recorded Tibetan history dates from the fourth century when the first kingdoms were established at Yarlung, in what is now South-Central Tibet. Later, in the seventh century, the center of Tibetan civilization shifted to the valley of Lhasa, "Gods' Place," where the first Buddhist kingdoms were established. Tibet maintained independent political relations with both China and Nepal; and though the Tibetan form of Buddhism was influenced by all of its Buddhist neighbors, Tibet was the only country in the region to develop and preserve, to a remarkably late date, a functional Buddhist theocracy.

The Tibet of the Dalai Lamas epitomizes the phenomenon of the remote and isolated mountain society which preserved unique and even bizarre customs in the midst of a changing world. In fact, Tibet was never completely isolated. Buddhist influence from India and Nepal and political influence from China played major roles in the organizational aspects of Tibetan society and culture. But by the eleventh century Tibet had acquired all the Buddhism it could from India, as Buddhism as an organized religion had ceased to exist there. Political influence from China had been strong during the Tang Dynasty, in the seventh and eighth centuries mainly, and had been all but nonexistent during the period of the Sung. The Mongol Yuan Dynasty had claimed authority over Tibet but the actual effect was small. Not until 1728 did a "Chinese" dynasty, this time the Manchu Ching Dynasty, gain control over Tibetan political affairs. Thus the Tibetans had many centuries to develop and combine the influences received at an earlier date into their own unique political and religious systems.

The most unique aspect of the Tibetan system is that they did indeed combine the political and the religious, even providing for political succession by the Buddhist method of reincarnation. The main strengths of Tibetan culture, or of Tibetan high culture, derive from this long period of relative isolation. Besides racial and linguistic differences, it is the uniqueness of the political and cultural system developed by the Tibetans which is the basis of their claim of independence from China, and which must sustain them in their abrupt entry into the modern world.

Chinese Impose Socialism

Modern Tibetan culture has been subjected to strong disintegrating influences including the obvious trauma of loss of independence. These influences can be classified in three broad categories, each of potential terminal impact. Chronologically they include: (1) Chinese colonialism; (2) Communist Chinese minorities policies and attempts to "build socialism" in Tibet; and (3) modernization, including the impact of communications media and tourism.

The modern Chinese state is composed of many formerly independent small states. The latest additions in this process are the territories acquired after the establishment of the Peoples' Republic: Inner Mongolia, Xinziang (East Turkestan) and Tibet. China regarded Tibet as an independent if subservient state up until 1728, when the Manchu Ching Dynasty gained, by invasion, supervision over Tibetan political affairs. This supervision or suzerainty was effective only until 1840, when China was fragmented by the Opium Wars and subsequent period of European colonialism. Tibetan independence was re-established in 1912 by the 13th Dalai Lama at the time of the fall of the Manchu Dynasty. Chinese claims that "Tibet is and has always been part of China" have little basis in fact; but Chinese intentions toward Tibet are obvious if unfulfilled until recently. The greatest threat to the survival of Tibetan culture came with the Chinese "liberation" in 1950 and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959.

Although committed by the 17 Point Agreement of 1950 to preserve the political and cultural autonomy of Tibet, the Chinese in their attempts to impose policies of "socialization" left little to the authority of the Tibetan government. Gaining a free hand by the departure of the Dalai Lama and collapse of the traditional Tibetan government in 1959, the Chinese intensified their attempts to transform Tibetan society according to the doctrines and techniques of socialism.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, traditional Tibetan culture was subjected to tremendous reform pressure. Traditional organization of society was intentionally fragmented and an economic class basis artificially implemented in a society, which with one obvious exception - the major division between the aristocracy and commoners - had indistinct class divisions. Tibetan language was simplified, by elimination of honorifics and the introduction of "proletarian" terminology, and de-emphasized in schools in favor of Chinese. Buddhism was eradicated as far as possible both in its physical and spiritual forms.

Chinese Policies Fail

In 1979 the new Chinese government recognized the failure of its social and economic policies in Tibet. It admitted that the economic condition of the Tibetans was worse than in 1950 when the Chinese intervened. Hopes of gaining great wealth by the exploitation of minerals had fallen victim to investment and logistics difficulties. China found itself in the typical colonialists' dilemma that the economic exploitation of the colony did not pay the costs of occupation.

The policy of liberalization since 1979 has opened up a new potential for an economic benefit from Tibet in the form of tourism. With tourism, both foreign and domestic, however, comes the usual detrimental effects, compounded in this case by the Chinese permitting certain aspects of Tibetan culture which are politically innocuous and attractive to tourists, while prohibiting other aspects. Simultaneous with tourism have come the new forms of social entertainment, especially film and television. Yet Tibetan family life has suffered the same disruptions that any society experiences with the introduction of modern communications media.

Still, when the situation changed somewhat for the better for Tibetans in 1979, it was remarkable that any aspect of traditional Tibetan culture had even survived. When certain aspects of the individual practice of religion were again allowed, observers, especially the Chinese themselves, were amazed that the religious fervor of the Tibetans, both young and old, seemed undiminished. On the basis of their personal beliefs - organized religion being still prohibited - the Tibetans began to revive and rebuild their cultural heritage.

The remarkable degree to which Tibetans have been able to preserve their culture is largely due to the depth and breadth of the philosophical basis of their culture. The intentional preservation of as many aspects as possible of their culture by the refugee community in India has also been an important factor. Modern Tibetans both in India and in Chinese Tibet are questioning the validity and applicability of all aspects of their culture in the present situations. Tibetans in India and Nepal are forced to exist in an economic and social milieu in which some characteristics of traditional Tibetan culture, such as their business and trading acumen, are valuable, while others are not. Tibetan language study suffers from the need for fluency in both Hindi and English. And although the Tibetan government in exile has been successful in preserving much of its traditional culture, the exile community suffers from the precariousness of its political situation; individually they are neither citizens of India nor of Chinese Tibet.

Tibetans Face New Problems

Inside Tibet itself, young Tibetans have learned that the only personal course for them to pursue in order to be of benefit to their country lies through the Chinese educational and political systems. Only by demanding the rights as promised by the Chinese themselves in their stated minorities policies are Tibetans able to achieve any improvements in their living conditions. Tibetans must agree that they are Chinese first and only secondly members of a "national minority" in order to play any role in the affairs of their own country. Their only political leverage outside the Chinese political framework is due to the existence of the Dalai Lama's government in exile in India and the sympathies of a small international group of aficionados of Tibetan culture or Buddhism.

Whether forced to adapt to the trauma of exile or confronted with the Chinese demands for the complete restructuring of their society, Tibetans were torn from their isolation and thrust into the modern world in an amazingly abrupt manner. To use the Chinese Communists' terminology, Tibet was to be transformed from a "feudal" into a "socialist" society in short order. Tibetans in exile, especially those who emigrated to Europe or America, have adapted to equally dramatic changes. In both cases Tibetans have attempted to preserve the most personal of their religious beliefs and cultural traditions, while necessarily discarding some of the less "portable" or adaptable of their traditions, such as theocratic monasticism.

Tibetans face the problems of many "traditional" societies trying to adapt to rapidly changing conditions. The Tibetans, however, are far from primitive in their philosophical and cultural traditions. They enter the modern world with a cosmopolitan sophistication unexpected if one considers only their previous isolation. Hugely affected by the loss of their independence, Tibetans have, nevertheless, not been subsumed within the "broad masses" of Chinese. Nor, in their diaspora, have they assumed the usual helplessness of the refugee. Instead they have affected the world with the energy and conviction of their philosophical beliefs almost equal to the impact of the world upon them. As Tibet epitomized the isolated mountain fastness, they may epitomize the possibility for such a culture to survive in the modern world.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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